This is PART 2 of my notes of the BFI BEAU WILLIMON interview from last week –
‘Got an agent by writing a pilot for AMC. In grad school – assignment to come up with series idea. I’d come up with a story about a cotton plantation from the slaves’ perspective.
Wrote this really intense treatment – tutors said no-one would put that on air. Went to AMC with it – pitched it – they bought it in the room but they didn’t make the show. I wrote a few screenplays after that, that didn’t get made. Worried that it may be ending.
Which is when David Fincher called. I didn’t particularly want to write for TV. But after 30 mins meeting with Fincher I had a gazillion ideas. With Fincher, you’re dealing with the sort of mind you’ll never deal with again – his synapses spark faster than anyone I know.
Became clear I had to do HOUSE OF CARDS. A year long process of working on the 1st script.
Structure – TV closer to theatre – ongoing dialogue with the actors, department heads etc. Something your designer suggests in ep.2 can influence later eps. Each episode is a distinct entity but it doesn’t have to resolve itself, you can take your time, dive into character in a way you can’t in film or theatre. More like a novel than anything else. eg no control about how people watch (read) it. None of us had made TV before. So we said – we’ll make a movie that just happens to be 13 hours long. We don’t think of episodes so much as the whole movie.
We talked about how politics isn’t a symphony – it’s jazz – not a grand plan, but about call and response, reacting to events. New chaos – how do you manage that chaos and make it work for you? And the very best politicians know how to create chaos and make it work for them. From creative discoveries (eg season 1 Peter Russo character was never intended to be a character who ran for governor) – so we made a huge shift, took out other characters, gave Peter Russo their story. Page 1 rewrites. It worked for us. OR you might lose an actor thru a series regular deal falling through. But a lot of actors you don’t have in 1st position – you have no choice but to change your story, that has happened to us. Eg season 1 ep 9 We created scenes to justify Kevin Spacey wearing a bandage.
I’m really against the notion that writers should write characters of their gender – writing is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. We’re all limited, have unconscious biases. We want to be gender blind. I take issue with the word ‘strong’ in the expression ‘strong female characters’. They are human characters. Spectrum – at one end misogyny and neglect (in the observation of female characters) and at the other end trying to place female characters on some sort of pedestal – goddesses or fantasies – almost trying too hard to make them ‘strong’. What you should be doing is just saying – this character has a need – what is that need? What are they willing to do to fulfil that need?
Research on House Of Cards – a mix of book learning, expert consultants, and our own personal experience. About being open.
The adage – write what you know – is wise – but also good to write about what you don’t know.
The tone of House Of Cards – the BBC version more satire / pastiche. I didn’t want to do satire, it runs out of steam. I didn’t want to have an agenda, I wanted to write a drama.
David Fincher established an aesthetic – which we still adhere to.
What does the character need more than anything in the world? Character is behaviour, it’s what they do, because that’s all we see. Their needs will conflict with other people’s needs – the honesty of that conflict – not plot-driven.
House Of Cards – working with different writers – staff. I was doing this for the first time on this scale. In the writers I hired, I read in something of their work, some images or moments that I never could have come up with. Hard to find but when you do, 7 heads are better than 1. There has to be a decider. But if you’re collaborative and challenge each other, then the possibilities are incredible.
‘What’s the last thing you’d expect to see in the show?
Every season we start with a list of the least likely thing you’d expect to see in House Of Cards. What do they do when they go home at night? What do you do when you’re alone in your house? Eg playing computer games – I’m a big gamer – and this says something about Francis Underwood and where he’s at. Video games will probably be the primary art form of the 21st century. We’re at the beginning of a new medium.
A big part of my success is looking for opportunities, making your own opportunities.
Making your own film, putting on a play. But the opportunities will only be there if you’ve written the pages. Putting in the time, the thousands of hours and pages. The only thing that counts is the actual writing.
My first thought every day is – I will die. It can’t get any worse.’
A cheery note to end on!
Until next week
All the best
Feb 19th 2016